How I Became a Swing Nut

by: Mikko Kuusimäki It all started on July 24, 1938. Exactly 24 years and one week before I came around. My father was one and my mother was on her way. I better do some explaining. One of my great-aunts was born in 1918. A great person and quite a story in herself, she trained as a nurse, celebrated her diploma in August 1939 at the Fennia restaurant in central Helsinki to the sounds of Rytmi-Pojat (one of the hottest Finnish dance bands at the time), worked through the war years at the headquarters of the Finnish armed forces, and earned the respect of both Marshal Mannerheim and President Ryti there. On July 24, 1938, Artie Shaw recorded “Begin the Beguine”. History in the making as it soon turned out. She loved music. All kinds of music. Especially the big bands. I paid her a visit in late 1976. I remember browsing, with her kind permission, through her well-stocked record shelf and coming across a handsome set of six LP’s. Its title referred to the Glenn Miller era. I was interested ­– I had seen that set advertised in a mag and had heard, or heard of, “In the Mood”, “American Patrol” plus a few others. That was pretty much the extent of my knowledge of “swing” at the time. So I asked her what kind of music she had there. Back in those days, classical music reigned supreme on our family record player. My older brother took it to heart and soon became an expert. She said, with the slightest hint of nostalgia in her voice and a dreamy faraway look in her eyes, that she had loved swing way back in time and still did. She was kind enough to lend those six LP’s to me. I got home, slipped Record No. 1 from its jacket and put it ever-so-carefully on the turntable. Track 1 I had already heard. It was “Moonlight Serenade” (a later re-recording, as it turned out) so I skipped it. Track 2. “On the Sunny Side of the Street”. Tommy Dorsey. “Pretty good”, I thought. Track 3. “And the Angels Sing”. Benny Goodman. My reaction: “Not bad.” Then, WHAM. Track 4 knocked me right into Swingdom Come. All of a sudden, it was July 24, 1938 for me. I was stunned. No, make that mesmerized. From the word go. By the time Mr Shaw breathed his first note, I was sold. For life. When the brass and reeds took over, I couldn’t believe my ears. Come to think about it, I still can’t. I was 14 then. Now I am 50. And I’m whistling Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine” as I am writing this. I went on and got my first taste of Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Fats Waller (“Your Feet’s Too Big” gets me every time), Guy Lombardo (the odd one out in this company, one might say with hindsight), Charlie Barnet, Vaughn Monroe, Sammy Kaye, Wayne King, and even Xavier Cugat – not to mention this Freddy Martin piece, a personal favourite of mine I once sung at a student party. Then there were the singers. Tex Beneke. Jack Leonard. Frank Sinatra. Ray Eberle. Oh, Paula Kelly. Oh, Martha Tilton. Oh, Dinah Shore. And oh, Jo Stafford. To name but a few. Plus a bonus LP with stuff by assorted righteous cats like Gene Krupa, the NBC Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, John Kirby, Ziggy Elman, and Wingy Manone (“Ochi Chornya”, anyone?). That was my Swing 101. It must have taken me several days to go through all the 82 tracks included in the set. Then I started over. From the top. Indeed, the music did go round and round and it came out there. Much to the dismay of my brother I might add. I guess hearing “In the Mood” for the gazillionth time could throw him a bit after a steady diet of what some have called “longhair” music. Don’t get me wrong; I admire Mozart (and Michael Nyman), will always have a soft spot for Saint-Saëns, and believe I still have an almost working knowledge of the classics. It’s just that they are not exactly my cup of java any more than swing is my brother’s. (He likes especially Bach’s organ works which I have found ideal for annihilating houses of card. The experiments I conducted in this field yielded literally shattering results.) Funny how differently the same genes did turn up in the two of us. Although “Your Feet’s Too Big” gets him too. To this day, I thank that great great-aunt of mine for sharing that one dreamy faraway look with me. As to that LP set of hers, she sort of never wanted it back (quite probably realizing what it meant – and was already doing – to me at the time). It is the cornerstone of what record collection I have. The box is coming a bit apart at the seams, but who cares? So am I. Weirdness soon ensued. At 15, I was humming “On the Sunny Side of the Street” at an appropriate location and paid attention to Count Basie’s “Has Anyone Here Seen Basie” being played as a jingle on a Finnish afternoon radio show (somebody at the Finnish Broadcasting Company must have known a good tune when s/he heard one) which, on one memorable occasion, ended with a torrid live rendition of “Caravan” by Benny Goodman. I still recall the thrill of hearing those incredible high notes by Harry James for the very first time – and that ending, wow… At 16, I named Artie Shaw as one of my idols at music class while Gary Glitter, Tom Jones, and Nazareth were among the top acts of the day. At 17, TV pitched in. I saw Tony Palmer’s “All You Need is Love: The Story of Popular Music” and Howard Hawks’ great “Ball of Fire” featuring Gene Krupa (remember: “What is the name of that song?” – “Boogie!” – “What does ‘boogie’ mean?”). Those were my first glimpses of the visual excitement swing music, and swing bands, could generate. Around that time, I also discovered that I have an Intracranial Record Player, or “ICRP” for short. It is a precious piece of equipment and has saved my life in many a tedious meeting. It also seems to have unlimited disk space. No loudspeakers required. How’s that for a budding swing nut? It also turned out that both of my parents had been pretty good dancers when young(er) and still mastered quite a few nifty steps. Miller’s “American Patrol” had been their favourite record in the 50s at school hops. My father, who had developed a lifelong interest in jazz, introduced me to Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan among others. To Django Reinhardt, too. He has always liked Duke Ellington’s and Adelaide Hall’s “Creole Love Call” – another goodie my ICRP plays thanks to my old man. (On the other hand, he also loves Charles Mingus’s “Devil’s Blues” and I don’t. I mean I really, REALLY don’t. But that’s another story.) Then, still watching Mr Palmer’s series and with the 50s revival taking Finland by storm, I discovered and started collecting rock’n’roll. I may digress here but, for all I knew, there was a direct lineage between swing and rock’n’roll and I like them both even more for that. Why make the distinctions too rigid if the music is good? (Fats Domino’s 1949 “Hey La Bas Boogie”, anyone?) Besides, theirs is a peaceful albeit not overly silent coexistence in my ICRP. The funny thing is that I could never muster up similar interest in the Beatles or whoever has come after them. Old-fashioned? Who? Me? Yep. Or just true to my childhood darlings. Now I never, NEVER considered myself a dancer. I seem to belong to that one generation that somehow found it difficult to take lessons so dancing appeared to pass me by. I am also on the shy, bookish side and not exactly the sportiest guy around. Not by a long shot. There was TV, too. As far as I can recall, it was a big thing in the 70s so it was very easy for me to stay home – especially since, as I may have hinted earlier on, the (dance) music of that particular era never really clicked with yours truly. On the other hand, I may have overdosed on swing and rock’n’roll by that time already. Be that as it may, I kept listening to “my” music, finding new fun things in it and raiding record stores in the process. Over the years, I have come across Benny Carter, Bing Crosby’s jazzier ‘30s cuts and his kid brother Bob (I can’t get over his “I’m Prayin’ Humble”), Eddy Duchin (“buck-buck-buck-EET!”), Roy Eldridge, Glen Gray, the Ink Spots, Jimmie Lunceford, Slim and Slam, and oh so many others. I have also unearthed a double LP with Benny Goodman’s 1937–38 airchecks including that torrid live take on “Caravan” – just like meeting an old friend for the first time in years. Stockholm in the early 90s. The smallest record store I have ever seen. Not much bigger than a hole in an Östermalm wall. That’s where Will Bradley and Ray McKinley beat this daddy eight to the bar and my world hasn’t been quite the same since. (By the way, catch their “Strange Cargo” if you can. You will never regret it.) Helsinki, circa 1993. A CD of Finnish dance music by none other than the aforementioned Rytmi-Pojat with a couple of pretty creditable swing jobs by Eugen Malmstén and cohorts methinks. This one is for that great great-aunt of mine. Helsinki in 2008. A Russian bookshop. There I go again, getting my first contact with Czech and even Soviet ‘30s swing. All the while, I remained convinced I had an anatomically inordinate number of sinistral pedal extremities and, since I had never learned to dance, I never would. So I kept listening. Little did I know that two fateful events were not long in coming. Fateful Event No. 1: one day a few years back I discovered a 100-part CD series of Top Thirty jazz hits from 1919 to 1955 a major Finnish retailer was trying to get rid of at ridiculously buyer-friendly prices. Call it a textbook case of temporary insanity but I raided every store carrying that series in the Greater Helsinki area and wound up with 98 of the 100 volumes. That took some legwork and the better part of a summer holiday week. Ordering the remaining two from the manufacturer seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time. It makes even more sense to me now. So there I was, the proud owner of a treasure trove of 2,211 (or 2,179 if one omits re-issues) toe-tappers from Dixieland to Swing and beyond by guys from Van Alexander to Bob Zurke with a generous helping of first-rate canaries thrown in for good measure. Enough gassers, solid senders, and killer-dillers to last me a lifetime. All the giants are there along with many unsung heroes I had never heard, or never heard of. Harry Reser. Raymond Scott. Ben Pollack’s “Got the Jitters”. Frank Froeba (no wonder his outfit was called just “His Swing Band”). And then some. I have thus far listened through about 75 volumes and found gems in each of them. I think I can safely surmise that, after hearing all the 100 discs, I might, and very probably will, happily start all over again – just like I did with those six LP’s in late 1976. My ICRP will thank me for that. Chances are that I will never need to buy another record again. (Whether I want to is another matter altogether.) It is also starting to dawn on me that, even with all these 2,211 cuts, I am barely scratching the surface of Swing. You might say that I’m beginning to see the light. How’s that for a swing nut? Fateful Event No. 2: late in 2011, a dear, dear friend of mine asked me if I she could interest me in a Lindy Hop week-end workshop. She could. I mean she really could. She can be very persuasive in the best kind of way, you know. So, contrary to my very nature, I found no real reason not to attend – remember, I am the archetypal shyish bookworm, and a nearly superhuman effort would usually have been required. Yet I found myself fretting about my alleged bisinistropedality. Came her reply, quick as lightning: “What matters most in dancing is rhythm, and that you’ve got down to a T.” I was not long in buying my first-ever pair of dancing shoes and showing up with my two left feet. Then, WHAM. All of a sudden, it was July 24, 1938 again for me. Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine”. That dreamy faraway look in my great-aunt’s eyes. The music. The “hey, nice to meet you, glad you came” atmosphere. Then, lo and behold, to paraphrase the late great Gene Vincent: my feet did things they’d never done before. What a difference a week-end made. Now I have been to two Lindy Hop workshops and at every single Sunday evening tea dance organized since Fateful Event 2. Plus to a Monday evening dance course (I haven’t missed a single lesson so far and don’t intend to either). And to a House Rent Party. And to an Independence Day ball. I have had a blast every time. Truth be told, as a dancer, I still think I’m no great shakes. Bad pun intended. I am far from being, and may never become, an A-1 hoofer. At times, I get mixed up instead of, well, just dancing and most likely look like a caribou caught in your headlights in the middle of a road at night. That’s when I can hear the cogwheels in my thinkbox go clickity-clack as the machinery overheats (“hmm… wait a minute… what’s my partner doing?… what step is that?… how do I execute this thing called a swingout?… is this where a breakaway occurs?… hmm…”). According to reliable witnesses, smoke then emerges from my ears. But that’s beside the point. The point is that, at other times, I just dance. After all, “dance music” is not called “dance music” without a reason. And I am yet to see a ladder one would not begin climbing from the bottom. I also seem to be learning enough to keep coming back for more. My feet (one left one and one right one as I am getting to realize) usually ache after that. It’s the good kind of ache. Beats bellyaching any day of the week. Especially since I feel literally upbeat for days afterwards and since my ICRP picks up new tunes – for instance this one, a bona fide hit at those Sunday evening tea dances. (Now here’s the curious thing: a good tune can also make me feel that my ship will leave tomorrow in the general direction of some tiny island I have never heard about in the Pacific shortly before V-J day – and that I will come back in one piece.) Quite a good way to lose those Sunday-evening blues and to avoid watching the same lame movie for the umpteenth time on TV. I got it good and that ain’t bad. So there you have it. The long and the short of it. The swing of things so to speak. The 35-or-so years since that one look in my great-aunt’s eyes. I still collect rock’n’roll – as of this writing, I have about 1,214 original r & b, rock, pop, doo-wop, and surf 78s, 33s, and 45s from the 1954–1963 era – but swing was and is my starting point. It does go to your feet. It does make you nine feet tall if you are four feet five (and works wonders for the kind of vulture-like slouch I have developed during my office-plankton years). And all God’s chillun do got rhythm. If I were ever to get myself a pet rabbit I would have to call him (or her) Berigan. It all started on July 24, 1938. In a way, it still is July 24, 1938. Not bad for a swing nut, huh? … Shall we dance?


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